During the Wars of the Roses the story begins with the Tunstall Moat House alarm bell being rung: troops led by Sir Danile Brackley must be gathered to join the Battle of Risingham toward its end. Meanwhile a group of men known as The Black Arrow start shooting “four black arrows” which kill “four black hearts”: sir Daniel Brackley, Dick’s tutor, and three of his retainers, Nicholas Appleyard; Bennet Hatch; Sir Oliver Oates, the parson.
Some rhyming lines accompany the first arrow: when the protagonist Richard (Dick) Shelton, ward of Sir Daniel, to read them he become curious about the fate of his father Sir Harry Shelton. On his way to Kettley, where Sir Daniel was quartered, he meets a fugitive from Sir Daniel, disguised as a boy, alias John Matcham, who in reality is Joanna Sedley, an heiress, kidnapped by Sir Daniel.
While travelling through Tunstall Forest John-Joanna tries to persuade Dick to join the Black Arrow outlaws who live in the forest. There they also met Sir Daniel himself disguised as a leper coming back after his defeat at a Battle of Risingham. Dick and Joan follow Sir Daniel to the Moat House. Here Dick changes finds out that Sir Daniel is the real murderer of his father, and escapes injured from the Moat House. He is rescued by the outlaws of the Black Arrow and joins them.. Dick is then engaged in the rescue of his true love Joanna from the clutches of Sir Daniel with the help of both the Black Arrow fellowship and the Yorkist army led by Richard Crookback, the future Richard III of England. The story ends with Dick knighted by Richard Crookback, Sir Daniel killed by the last black arrow, and Dick and Joan married.
England during the period of the War of the Two roses
Richard Shelton: the protagonist, son of the late Sir Harry Shelton, heir of Tunstall.
Bennet Hatch: a middle aged retainer of Sir Daniel Brackley, and bailiff of the Tunstall hundred.
Sir Oliver Oates: the local parson and Sir Daniel’s clerk.
Sir Daniel Brackley, an unscrupulous knight, who sides with either York or Lancaster when it suits him.
Joanna Sedley: or John Matcham, the ward of the Lord Foxham, kidnapped by Sir Daniel.
Will Lawless: a “Friar Tuck” type of outlaw, member of the Black Arrow Fellowship, who has been many things in life, including a Franciscan friar.
Ellis Duckworth: organizer of the Black Arrow Fellowship who wants to avenge Harry Shelton, Simon Malmesbury, and himself.
The group of the Black Arrow
Richard Crookback, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Glocester, future Richard III of England , a real historical personsources
historical sources – There are mainly two time references for the two blocks of action that constitute the narrative: May, 1460 and January, 1461.
Richard Crookback, Richard III of England would have been merely 8 years old at the time of this story, but R. L. Stevenson follows William Shakespeare in retrojecting the personage of Richard of Gloucester into the earlier period of the Wars of the Roses and portraying him as a harsh. This characterization falls in line with the Tudor Myth, a tradition that excessively denigrates Richard of Gloucester and cast the entire English Fifteenth Century as a bloody, barbaric chaos in contrast to the Tudor era of law and order.
The fictitious Battle of Shoreby is modelled after the First Battle of St Albans in the Wars of the Roses. This battle in history as in the novel is a complete victory for the House of York.
geographical sources – In the opening lines of the Prologue Tunstall with its nearby forest is located in SE Suffolk County, England, 18 miles NE of Ipswich and less than 10 miles from the North Sea.
Some names of the place in the novel are adapted: Kettley is Kettleburgh in actuality, Risingham is Framlingham, and Foxham is Farnham. The identities of Shoreby-on-the-Till and Holywood are probably Orford and Leiston respectively. Orford is on the North Sea and has a road going to the northwest to Framlingham (the “highroad from Risingham to Shoreby”), and Leiston has an abbey as does Holywood in the story.
character references – The name of the main character Richard Shelton were probably a reference to an actual historical personage, Sir Richard Tunstall. He, Lancastrian and ardent supporter of King Henry VI of England, held Harlech Castle against the Yorkists through most of the 1460s when Edward IV of England ruled. In contrast, Richard Shelton, who becomes the knight of Tunstall at the end of The Black Arrow, is a staunch Yorkist.
literary sources – R. L. Stevenson is inspired by the great and various traditions of good-hearted ooutlaws who date back to Robin Hood (Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is another example). Besides in the book the episode of the battle on the sea is like an homage to the various battles of the novels of the 18th century (Daniel Defoe Tobias Smollett’s diaries of mariners and stories of pirates).
In the story also the Arabian Nights’ stories are mentioned.
The Black Arrow is about the story of Richard Shelton during the Wars of the Roses: how he becomes a knight and rescues his lady Joanna Sedley. Dick is torn as to whom he should stand with: he discovers that Sir Daniel Brackley, his guardian, murdered his father, and finds himself among a group of outlaws known as the Black Arrow, who were organized to revenge his father among others.
The first adaptation dates 1911: a short film starring Charles Ogle.
The 1948 Gordon Douglas’s film portrays Richard Gloucester in a more favourable light than in the novel. In 1968 appeared on TV a seven-part Italian TV production entitled La Freccia Nera, and from 1972-1975 a British TV series .